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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Breakthrough (part II) - Dancing

This is the story of how dancing became a beloved part of my life.

It is a hot night, one particularly warm for San Francisco. The elusive Indian summer is upon us this October and for once we wish it was cooler. The air seems to be still and heavy as a bunch of fit and sweaty bodies gyrate in unison to loud thumping beats. They writhe in close contact, with miens animated in focus and in joy, and their torsos, hips and limbs amply express their gratification of the moment.

This is not quite a scene from the sequel to Eyes Wide Shut. It is in fact salsa night at Baobab Lounge – the 'go-to' place for salsa Cubana mid-week here in San Francisco. It's not a fancy place – just a big room with waxed wooden floors, a bar, and with some of the best musica Cubana and accomplished salseros around. This is a dedicated bunch of Bay area salsa aficionados reveling in their weekly musical fix. They dance in couples. Men lead and women follow – mostly, but since this is San Francisco conventions are often challenged, nothing wrong with defying gender norms (makes the scene more fun). They execute complex maneuvers with their bodies connecting in intricate patterns but always in harmony to the beat. Outsiders have a hard timing believing that this is not all rehearsed beforehand. In fact a dancing couple may be complete strangers before they find each other in a close embrace at the beginning of a new song (not by accident though as the guy will request a dance from a girl as per social dancing mores)

Salsa by the lake - a regular Bay area summertime event.
A starting position will consist of the couple facing each other with the guy's right arm in the center-high region of the girl's back and the girl with her arm around his shoulder ,and the other pair of arms come together in a high-five like position. Beginning basic dance vueltas that build confidence will lead to more complex choreographies. Staying in sync with the clave is key and what helps everything in looking so fluid and effortless. The hardest and most under-estimated part of learning to dance is surprisingly not the actual movement but training oneself to listen to the music and identifying the 7-count (un, dos, tres, cinco, seis, siete). Catching the beat is paramount and once lost things are apt to get a wee chaotic and can result in little accidents on the dance floor. This Norwegian guy I met in Cuba joked that he played so much timba at home in his quest for rhythmic acclimation that even his dog started tapping in tune! 

I'm cooling off at the bar having just finished this joyful dance with somebody I just met. She was a treat, following my lead effortlessly and also endorsing my desire to be creative in mixing up patterns. We both knew the song and our mutual pleasure was clearly evident in our smiles and goofy expressions. When I go dancing I don't rest much, but I've been dancing non-stop since I arrived and I allow myself this break and savor the high from the last one over an icy cold Sierra Nevada. As I relax my thoughts drift back to my journey as a dancer. 

I've always enjoyed moving to music. My body seems to naturally animate and I have loved dancing for as long as I can remember. Dancing is a part of mainstream culture in India with a tradition that goes back millenniums. In the modern context Bollywood music provides a popular outlet and most parties will have some of the living area cleared up for folks to dance. Perhaps unlike the US, dancing is enjoyed equally by both sexes and social mores allow for men to be just as uninhibited in expressing their revelry to the music. I've taken formal lessons a few times in the last decade. A few with tango back in Charlotte about 7 years ago, a few classes in Cuban salsa about 5 years ago and then some Bollyhood and Bhangra classes intermittently. While I never quite caught the groove with the Latin genres in those first forays, learning the Bollyhood choreography felt vastly easier and pleasurable. Analyzing now, it was clearly because Latin music was new and hence difficult, but Indian music easily coursed through those veins. And when one knows the music and relishes it, dancing is merely an expression of that pleasure. My philosophy at least :)


Beautiful, majestic limestone cliffs, the excuse to visit Cuba!
And here we are scaling that beautiful stone
My thoughts were far from salsa when Max and I decided to plan a trip to sample the forbidden limestone cliffs of Cuba during Christmas for 2012. Climbing fueled vacations in exotic locales is an exquisite reward as a rock climber. The trip to Cuba was unlike any climbing adventure. Climbing in Cuba is off the beaten path with access made very difficult because of the US embargo. Consequently we arrived at the small village of Vinales where we quickly became family with the small group of local and foreign escaladores. After a full day of climbing, we would all walk over to the one of two bars around the town square which would have a live band jamming salsa, cha cha cha and meringue  every night. It was quite astonishing that the small population of a few thousand could support so much live music. Everybody in this impoverished island country seems to know to dance and play music. (My theory on the ubiquity of music and dance (and booze) rests on Castro's apparent ploy to subsidize such leisurely sustenance to the masses so as to distract them from any notions of revolt). It was indeed fascinating to see men and women, young and old, dance with joy and abandon and invite us into their midst. They were only too happy to teach us the basic steps and we quickly made new friends. This was a great atmosphere for us to start appreciating fundamental rhythms in timba (the Cuban variant of salsa music) and the elemental footwork. A great lifestyle of climbing and dancing ensued for our 3 weeks in Cuba. 
Making friends and learning salsa (in Cuba)

The seeds were hopelessly sown and coming back to San Francisco I spent no time in hunting down salsa schools and enrolling for lessons right away. Fortunate to live in this beacon of art and music, I found great classes in vicinity, in quick walking or biking distance from my home in the Mission. Shout out to both ODC Dance Studio and Dance Mission, two absolute standouts in the SF Bay Area dance scene! About 5 years later and second time around the classes and the dancing felt very different and I daresay, much easier. 

Having been exposed to the music at length in Cuba, I had started to trust and gain familiarity with my body's response to the music. 'Feeling' the music is really the cornerstone of excelling in dance. Not a secret but hard to appreciate by newcomers. 

My decision to take classes 2-3 times a week and also dip my toes in the social dancing scene was not too hard. I had some time freed from climbing with a nagging finger injury. The dance classes were a perfect respite and I was experiencing  rapid progress and forming new friendships in the salsa scene. 

The other realization is that complete immersion is the key to unlocking this new skill. Going to class once a week isn't quite enough and with more frequency comes greater muscle memory and confidence. 

Being accomplished at social dancing is still a long way off from learning distinct patterns to rote. The latter is just the tip of the iceberg with excelling as a dancer. Besides an innate appreciation of the music, honing skills takes rhythm, improvisation and, well, the appetite for risk -  one needs to be daring to not only experiment with new moves but also to ask strangers to dance. Ha! I certainly had my fair share of trials in the club scene as I dove in the deep end. I'm glad though that I stepped out of my comfort zone early in the process and early in my dancing career – I'm a much better dancer as a result. I notice many promising dancers in studio classes who may be a bit shy of losing face at a club and consequently have a hard time taking their skills outside of the familiarity of the dance studio. 

As luck would have it, I had the chance to go back to Cuba a second time. I had earned a sabbatical at PayPal (after 5 years of service) and I decided to spend part of a vacation overseas in Cuba to take more intensive classes in dance and to really experience Cuban salsa at its place of origins. This time back I decided to spend the entire time in La Habana taking classes, exploring some of the local culture and then throwing myself into the social dance and music scene with full gusto. I saw some truly enthralling dancing, both on-stage performances but also locals who had me spellbound with their grace and profound artistry of movement. One of the discoveries of this Cuban trip was the exposure to the allied dance forms of Afro-Cuban and Rumba. The latter in particular really inspired me and I vowed to start learning this dance form as well. After Cuba I found my way to Colombia to meet a friend for some rock climbing and for generally exploring the country for about 3 weeks. I was of course excited to sample the local dance scene and promptly found myself in the local salsa clubs in Bogota and Medellin. Colombian salsa is of a different variant, though very beautiful and is characterized with a generally relaxed torso but furiously thumping footwork. Pretty cool stuff.

Salsa, anywhere, anytime (my living room!)
Coming back home I felt a bit re-born, having gotten a taste first-hand of the vast possibilities in the world of Latin dance. Since then I'm made fast strides with regular social dancing to complement the variety of classes. Besides salsa and some Rumba classes, I've also experimented recently with Reggateon and Samba. San Francisco is truly blessed with an incredible dance scene and world class instructors of all genres. One bit of serendipity I've had is of the relative ease in exploring new dance forms now that I'm studied in another. For I found that the training to both recognize beats aurally and bodily in one genre helps everywhere. And while the moves may be different, the muscle movement is often similar.

Here's some renegade street salsa that took place in Berkeley recently! 

If not completely life-changing, my second wind as a dancer has certainly taken my lifestyle in a new direction. I love the opportunity to express myself through dance and know that this passion is here to stay. I've also found a great community of dancers we are blessed that this convivialism is universal. Wherever that I may be in this world I will always have somewhere to go dancing!

I come away convinced that there is a right time in life for everything. Perseverance, and a bit of opportunity and luck can change everything.

There's one more post remaining in this series - as soon as I find that elusive breakthrough to progress to the next level with rock climbing!